by Kelly Ostrofsky
Over the past summer, I was collecting pilot data for my dissertation project on the locomotion of wild African apes, so I spent my time hiking in the forest and watching mountain gorillas in Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda and Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Uganda. The mountain gorillas I visited in Rwanda are monitored by Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International’s Karisoke Research Center, and the project on Bwindi mountain gorillas is lead by researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in collaboration with the Uganda Wildlife Authority and the Institute for Tropical Forest Conservation.
After about seven weeks in the field, I was successfully able to flood the news feeds of my friends and family with photos of mountain gorillas – from impressive silverbacks to energetic blackbacks to adorably playful infants. Long hikes up to an elevation of 3700 meters in the wet and cold, shorter hikes through fields of stinging nettles, slipping and sliding in the mud (‘Rwandan skiing’? Not how I do it…), struggling to keep up with fit and experienced trackers, and even the less eventful treks – all culminated in a few hours of my presence being tolerated by a group of mountain gorillas, an amazing experience each and every time. To be honest, my photos could not do them justice.
But my mountain gorilla experiences have not been the only primate-related stories popping up on social media. The past few months have seen a few ape-related media stories. Many people are probably more familiar with the incident in May at the Cincinnati Zoo that ended with the tragic death of Harambe, a silverback western lowland gorilla, as the story received a lot of media coverage and public ‘discussion’. Although much of the initial public outcry over Harambe’s death and the viral memes that spread in the aftermath may have been a bit over-the-top, one would hope that having a gorilla temporarily at the forefront of the public’s mind may have also highlighted their conservation status. In the wild, western lowland gorillas (Gorilla gorilla gorilla) live in dense, remote rainforests of western central Africa. There are an estimated 150,000-250,000 individuals based on surveyed areas, but rapid declines in population have led to a listing of ‘critically endangered’ by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) since 2007. “Critically endangered” status is the highest level of threat, meaning that the species is considered to be facing a severe risk of extinction.
Another more recent and probably less ‘trending’ announcement is that the IUCN has just officially raised the conservation status of Grauer’s gorillas (G. beringei graueri), found only in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, to critically endangered. Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and Fauna and Flora International (FFI) surveys have shown that their populations have declined by at least 77% in the past twenty years, with less than 4,000 individuals remaining.
Grauer’s gorillas are a subspecies of eastern gorillas (G. beringei), the other subspecies being mountain gorillas (G. beringei beringei), the ones I visited this summer. They are also critically endangered. In fact, only about 800 individuals are estimated to live in the wild, in Rwanda, Uganda, and Democratic Republic of Congo. As I’ve heard gorilla researchers try to emphasize, the number of mountain gorilla individuals that exist in the entire world are about the same the number of individuals you could fit on an airplane.
Another not-so-recent story but an ongoing one is about the chimpanzees abandoned by the New York Blood Center (NYBC). This story initially broke out a little over a year ago, highlighting the uncertain fate of a group of chimpanzees that had been used] for medical research by NYBC, who then abandoned the animals on small islands off the Liberian coast with little to no natural food or fresh water available. A petition was started by Dr. Brian Hare at Duke University to urge the NYBC to take responsibility for the chimpanzees and reinstate funding for their care. Updates on the situation include reluctance from the NYBC to provide lifetime care for the chimpanzees that were subjected to years of medical research. Continued coverage on these chimpanzees will hopefully publicize their plight, to hold NYBC accountable and in the meantime, raise money to maintain the lives of these chimpanzees. The most recent update indicates that the Humane Society and former New Mexico governor and United Nations ambassador Bill Richardson are teaming up to do just that.
Whether in the wild or in captivity, these apes are our closest living relatives. In addition to the unfortunate situations like those of the NYBC chimpanzees, many of the apes are threatened with extinction. All the great apes are endangered or critically endangered, with major threats coming from poaching as well as habitat loss. In addition to those discussed above (western lowland gorillas and both subspecies of eastern gorillas), both species of orangutans (Sumatran Pongo abelii and Bornean Pongo pygmaeus), another subspecies of western gorillas (Cross River gorillas, G. g. diehli) as well as one subspecies of chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes verus) are all critically endangered.
A (non-exhaustive) list of links with more information about some of these topics and related ones!
More related to Harambe
Scientific American: “Why was Harambe the Gorilla in the Zoo in the First Place?”
Vice: “An Expert Explains What Happens to Gorillas After They Die in Zoos”
The Diane Rehm Show: “The Future of Zoos”
More related to announcement of Grauer’s gorillas Critically Endangered status
Fossey Fund News: “Congo gorilla species now officially “critically endangered”
National Geographic: “Grauer’s Gorilla at Extremely High Risk of Extinction in the Wild”
Washington Post: “World’s largest gorilla moved to ‘critically endangered’ status”
Fauna & Flora International: “Grauer’s gorillas face high risk of extinction”
Jane Goodall Institute: “Lost in the mist: The fall of the great apes”
Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International: anti-poaching and monitoring programs to protect mountain gorillas in Rwanda as well as Grauer’s gorillas in the Democratic Republic of Congo
Gorilla Doctors: international veterinary team that monitors the health of mountain and Grauer’s gorillas in Rwanda, Uganda, and DRC